Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Flying the Coop

It's five in the morning. The roosters have been crowing for half an hour now, reminding me with urgent, combative dissonance that the world's agenda rarely matches mine.

These roosters should have been done in nine months ago. Initially their necks were saved by the burst plumbing in our old house. It's hard to butcher and process chickens without a lot of clean, hot water. Further months of intense house-building kept those birds alive as our energies were consumed by our own 30'x30' nest. I managed to do in a few of them between March, when we got our plumbing, and June, when the rains came. Last week I finally had a little bit of time, but no remaining freezer space to receive the processed birds. (It's all been taken up by our surprisingly meaty little bull, who arrived home from the butcher in eight big boxes of little white packages!) Now, as we near the end of our house-building--and the end of Maine's wettest Summer on record--the pre-dawn ungawdly chorus is enough to make me want to run far, far away.

So I'm gonna.

Later this morning, The Piper and I will leave the state. No fear-- we're not moving, as evidenced by the fact that we have a bank appointment to discuss refinancing on the way to the airport. It's an awkward time for a vacation, but--as those roosters keep reminding me, life's wake-up calls and urgent messages rarely meet us in a place of perfect readiness!

We are headed to the Northwest for a week with kith and kin. My older brother is going to be married this coming Saturday. Our presence and services have been lovingly requested: wedding music from The Piper and a wedding homily from me. (Good heavens. What does a farmer-preacher-poet say to her own incredibly hip urban brother and his smart, professional, no-nonsense wife-to-be, in front of such a cloud of witnesses?!? Guess I need to start writing on the plane!) In addition to the wedding and a series of long-awaited visits with Northwest friends, there will also be ripe blackberries to pick, plant nurseries to peruse, rambunctious new puppies to meet, and another farm to see: the burgeoning homestead of a childhood friend I haven't seen since sixth grade!

We are leaving our farm in the hands of an experienced farm hand, a young man who loves animals and will tend our creatures with joyful care. It feels wonderful to be able to step away with confidence. (Friends have been ribbing me all this past week with the ol' "farmers don't take vacations" line, and I confess that my stress level and general exhaustion caused me to reply a little more harshly than I'd have liked, but I promise to have a better sense of humour when I return.)

Oh, and WHEN we get back... those roosters better watch their backs, 'cause we aim to be rested and ready!

(P.S. I know that's not a very roostery-looking bird in the first picture-- it came in our broiler batch of chicks but turned out...um...well...less roostery than the rest.)

Friday, August 14, 2009

No More Bull.

Friday the 13th came on a Thursday this month... at least for Broilleach, our 2-year old Scottish Highland bull. He's still a wee lad compared to some of the newer, more hybridized beef animals you'd see on other farms, but it was definitely Time For Him To Go.

We were clear about our plan from the very beginning: any female cattle born on our farm would become breeding stock, to be kept or sold as needed, but male offspring would be raised for beef. As confirmed meat-eaters, we chose to raise our own meat animals. (I have considered vegetarianism in the past, but strong allergies to soy and other non-meat proteins led me to an omnivorous option.) We committed ourselves to animal-rearing practices that would ensure optimal health and well-being for all of us. As Joel Salatin advocates, we would create an environment where pigs could indulge in their full "pigness," cows could revel in their full "cowness," and chickens could...um...be all chickeny and stuff.

Broilleach, whose name means "Beef Brisket" in Scottish Gaelic, was the first calf born on our land to Iona, our Cattlefold matriarch. We charted out a plan for one initial two-acre field and three additional fields to be developed the following year for rotational grazing purposes. Thanks to a one-year delay in field development, those fields weren't ready when we needed them. The forages in that central pasture could not keep pace with the needs of one cow, two heifers, and one hungry, growing bull calf. Broilleach started seeking low spots along the fence line and busting the spring-wire gate to find better food. The female cattle never initiated any similar behavior, but if he busted through, they were happy to follow once they were sure of the gap.

"You'll never be able to do in your first one..." So said Iona's previous owner when he sold us our bred heifer. We smiled back at him and said that, if the first calf born on our farm was a male, we most certainly would, because we did not have the money to keep such large animals as pets. Broilleach's name (pronounced BROYL-yock) was chosen as a reminder to ourselves. True to our promise, we raised the bull calf for the standard 18 months recommended for Highland beef cattle, then kept Broilleach just long enough to be reasonably sure that he'd bred both our heifers. After that, well, that grass-guzzling fence-breaker had to go.

Mr Bisson and his boy came down to our farm yesterday morning with their trailor. We had Broilleach and the other cattle up on the front lawn, roped in with portable electric fencing. True to his nature, Broilleach made one last successful plunge through the fence, but it seemed to be mostly for show-- after a few defiant chomps on the rugosa rose bushes and a momentary tangle with the forsythia, we routed him back towards the lawn and he stepped daintily over the dropped-but-live fence wire. Thanks to two years of frequent handling including hand-fed treats and regular brushing, Broilleach stood a couple of feet from the open trailer and calmly allowed Mr. Bisson to drape, then tighten, a rope over his horns. After the end of the rope was secured inside the trailer, Mr. Bisson grabbed one horn, his son grabbed the other, and they led that great, hairy beast up and into the trailer. Now THAT'S grabbing the bull by the horns!!!

In a few days, we'll get a call from Bisson's butcher shop, then we'll drive up to pick up our boxes of pretty white packages. We'll also take home his horns--I have a rather indulgent, silly dream of having them made into something splendid like a pibgorn, a Welsh member of the bagpipe family--the only one I've ever successfully tried to play. (We wanted to save his hide and have it tanned, but the cost was sadly prohibitive.) We'll sell about half of the meat to cover our butchering costs and keep the rest for our own freezer and table. Our winter meals will be seasoned with the savoury knowledge that this animal lived a good and decent life, free from the stress of toxic management and the cruelty and disease of feedlots.

So, look out world-- our house is days away from being done and our horrible year is behind us. In September, we'll finally fence in those new fields. Next year, there'll be enough grass for cows and calves both. Goodness knows whether we'll get heifer calves or more baby bulls. For now, though, this is one farm with NO MORE BULL!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Friday Five: Wind in My Sails

Sally, over at RevGalBlogPals, writes:
"... sailing is a family passion, we love the water and the wind, and take delight in the fresh air and quiet, but also in the competition, striving to do our best!
How about you?

1. Is there a sport/ hobby that is more of a passion than a past-time for you?
I've never been one for sports, although I do like salt-water swimming and Messing About In Boats and I adore a good game of Extreme Croquet.
My hobby/passion is the exploration of folk culture and traditions--especially those of the British Isles. (I come by this anthropological bent honestly-- growing up in a multi-ethnic family with three adopted siblings, intercultural study was simply a part of daily life, and provided a goodly portion of our family fun.) With some like-minded friends, we even started a nonprofit organization to support our folk culture habit, although it's in "sleep mode" while we finish building our house. The Piper and I have justified the purchase of many a CD and weighty ethnographic tome by saying, "It's all for the Ceilidh House library, of course--and we'll use these as reference materials when we teach our bagpipe and Gaelic language students!"

2. Outdoors or indoors?
Outdoors: festival-going, "ethnically-correct" gardening and orchard-tending with heirloom plant varieties, and staying close to the salt water that bouys my spirit and connects me to my ancestors. Indoors: delving into books, gathering with other folklore enthusiasts, swapping stories, and having great music session around the woodstove.

3. Where do you find peace and quiet?
Not sure right now-- it's been a hard year. I seek peace in the slow intake and release of breath, the comfortable closeness of my partner, the gradually-revealed beauty of our almost-finished house and the slowly-emerging health of our land. Quiet is easier to find than peace--I am thankful every morning and every night that I can begin and end my days surrounded, almost entirely, by natural rather than human-made sounds. (I'll relish the quiet more fully when I can find my missing whetstone and "take care" of a couple of extra roosters, if you know what I mean!)

4. A competitive spirit; good or bad, discuss...
A competitive spirit is like fire: a good servant, a terrible master, and dangerous to play with. I appreciate its ability to overcome inertia and get a person moving towards a goal, but I don't like the way others tend to be left in a person's wake. I should come clean and declare, right here, that I am a vicious card player, but fortunately my commpetitive streak is matched by a tendency toward distraction and terrible bad luck in the dealing of hands.

5. Is there a song a picture or a poem that sums up your passion ?
I've posted links to Richard Hugo's poem, Glen Uig, in previous posts. It captures some of the essential pain and joy of reconnection to one's past. Here's another poem from Cathal O Searcaigh, translated from Irish Gaelic by Gabriel Fitzmaurice:

A Portrait Of The Blacksmith As A Young Artist

I'm sick and tired of Dun Laoghaire.
Of my bedsit in Cross's Avenue,
A pokey place that cripples my wordsmith's craft
And leaves me nightly in the dumps
Scrounging kindred among the drunks
Instead of hammering poems for my people
On the anvil of my mind.
Almighty God! It's gone too far,
This damned silence.
If I were back in Caiseal na gCorr
I'd not be awkward, half-alive.

No way! But in the smithy of my tongue
I'd be hale and hearty
Working my craft daily
Inciting the bellows of my mind
Stirring thoughts to flame
Hammering loudly
The mettlesome speech of my people.

--found in Writing the Wind: a Celtic Resurgence: The New Celtic Poetry, ed. Thomas Rain Crowe.

Bonus for posting a video/ link.
Heeheehee... I thought you'd never ask: CLICK HERE!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Time in a One-Toilet Town

We wouldn't want to get too far above ourselves, so this past weekend we took a wee break from the drudgery of house-building and mud-farming for a holiday in a one-toilet town.

We were headed to Muscongus Island, a small (3 miles by one mile) island in Midcoast Maine. Our friends Julia and Fred, of Castlebay, helped us get the gig--the job of preparing and leading worship for this wee island "community" the morning after a Castlebay-led ceilidh on the deck of one of the summer residents' homes. This island no longer boasts any year-round residents--the last one left more than a generation ago--but the older Summer Folk can still recall many of the permanent residents, their ways of life and their stories.

The island has some odd dynamics. It is an ever-changing collection of people who live in close proximity yet rarely think of themselves as a community. There are no electrical lines, no televisions, no paved roads and no land-line telephones. (Actually, they tried to install a telephone system several years ago, but it never quite worked. You can still find remnants of the wire decaying along the tractor-paths that connect some of the more remote houses.) The island--until very recently--also had no flush toilets.

Everyone still proudly uses their outhouses except one Mr. Plimpton, who first earned the other residents' scorn by gutting a historic island house of its ornate decor to make way for modern decor. He then used his lawyerly skills and deep pockets to acquire permits, bring over heavy equipment and materials, and install the island's first flush toilet and septic system.

The other Summer Folk responses ranged from disgust to righteous indignation. By tacit agreement, they had abided by the common understanding of minimal impacts and respect of limited resources. They had invested in solar lights to cut down on their use of kerosene. They were careful to pack out all their trash...but Mr. Plimpton, apparently, couldn't trouble himself to abide by Island Common Sense.

As I prepared for the weekend on the island, I wrestled with my sermon. What could I say? After all, I was just another non-islander, another Person From Away. It was Julia who suggested I think in terms of other islands--the islands I've visited in Scotland, and the island, far to our west, on which I grew up. That was helpful-- every island has some sort of resource-use issue. Every island copes with the tension of building and maintaining a sense of community. But I still figured I'd have to go off-lectionary.

The Common Lectionary is a three-year ecumenical cycle of Bible readings designed to expose congregations to the vast majority of the Bible's themes, books, and important stories. Each week's readings include a reading from the Old Testamant/Hebrew Scriptures, Something from the Book of Psalms, Something from one of the Gospels, and a reading from one of the New Testament Epistles. Usually I try to stick to the lectionary readings--it's a good discipline, a sort of "writing prompt" for preachers. The weekly challenge is to find, in the assigned readings, something that speaks to a news item or community issue, and then craft a sermon that reflects honest engagement with the historical texts in light of our contemporary situation(s).

I figured I'd have to go off-lectionary for sure--what could a two-thousand-year-old collection of letters, poems and stories possibly say to a bunch of islanders in 2009 who were upset about a flush toilet? Well, might as well read the lectionary list for this week before I get on with the work... HAH! What I found were a bunch of people stuck in the wilderness together, worried about their food supply, and an early church congregation arguing over the relative value of each other's gifts. As they say, "That'll preach." (Readings may be found here. I used the readings from Exodus 16 and Ephesians 4.)

The piper and I arrived on the island Saturday evening by small power-boat. We weighed down the three-bench boat with unusual cargo: a fiddle, a guitar, Great Highland Bagpipes, Scottish Smallpipes, assorted flutes and whistles, bags of food and clothing, a large Celtic harp, three musicians, one preacher, and one very nervous farmdog. There were folks waiting at the dock to haul all our gear up the hill through the deep, dark mud created by a summer of unusually heavy rain. We set up for the ceilidh on the deck and enjoyed a lovely summer evening: music, potluck snacks, and an after-ceilidh supper at the home of the island's spry 85-year-old historian.

Sunday morning dawned with sweet birdsong and pearly light. The Piper and I had slept in the parsonage attached to the island church--our room was right next to the belltower. As instructed, I pulled the rope and rang the bell at fifteen minutes to nine to call the islanders to church. The Piper was poised and ready outside. As soon as I finished ringing the bell, she struck in her pipes and played in the thickening mist as the islanders made their way along the footpaths. Children were carried on shoulders. Dogs came as well, too rambunctious to tell if they were wearing their Sunday-go-to-meeting collars and leashes.

After the welcome and announcements and prayer of invocation, we had a hymn sing. People called out suggestions and a woman jumped up and offered to play the piano as we sang a few verses of each favourite hymn. As they opened their mouths and sang out the first hymn, such a glorious blend of strong voices and sweet harmonies arose--such a joyful noise in such a dear wee kirk! I felt deeply blessed by the Spirit moving in that place.

A young woman from the congregation read the first Bible reading, and I read the second. Next came the sermon:


It was a summer Sunday like this one, the air heavy with moisture and salt, no other cars on the roads, just the rise and fall of the ancient stone hills before us. We were in Scotland. We had just finished a week on the island of South Uist at a traditional music school. Now, with another student, we had rented a car to spend the weekend exploring the rest of the Outer Hebrides. It had seemed like a great idea-- pack four musicians and all their gear into a station wagon, grab food along the way, and wander merrily wherever we wanted.

Our traveling companion was fascinated by standing stones, and since he was our driver, we happily agreed to let our path be plotted by the locations of significant stones. Saturday had gone well enough-- we'd meandered through empty fields, along sheep paths and near low stacks of drying peat, to stand in front of this or that ancient monolith, used for nobody-knew-quite-what. It was a lovely diversion, and we'd been well-fortified by a full Scottish breakfast at a bunkhouse on the island of Harris.

Saturday afternoon, we headed north to the Isle of Lewis, my father's ancestral stomping grounds. The plan was to reach the biggest town, Stornoway, by nightfall, then spend the entire next day heading from one great stone wonder to the next, including the great stone-age fort called the Carloway Broch and the ancient circle of stones at Callanish.

Somehow, though, we'd missed a crucial bit of information. People had warned us, but we hadn't quite believed it. “Fill up your tank the night before; Lewis is closed on Sundays.” We didn't quite realize what it would mean. Lewis, it turns out, is a stronghold of conservative Protestant devotion, and when they keep the Sabbath, they really keep the Sabbath—to the point of padlocking the swings in the public parks.

The morning was beautiful. We went to the lighthouse, dipped our toes in the other side of the Atlantic on a wee white-sanded beach, and watched endangered seabirds wheel above the ledges of some of the oldest rocks in the world. We romped through the remains of thousand-year-old fort. We polished up the last of our crackers and cheese and looked forward to afternoon tea at the Callanish visitors' centre, complete with a view of the standing stones.

But the visitors' centre was closed. The grocery store in the next town was closed. The petrol stations and convenience shops were closed. Even on a summer weekend, even at the height of the tourist season, Everything Really. Was. Closed.

We kept driving, bellies grumbling and growling, scanning the wide expanse of peat bogs and lichen-encrusted stones that reached to the horizon, hoping less and less for another picture-perfect monolith, hoping more and more for a convenience store around the next bend... Our panic continued to rise as the light faded from the sky. We realized we'd misunderstood the rules, misinterpreted our guides. We wanted bread. The island offered us nothing but stones.

Then we remembered Maggie. Maggie was a classmate of ours at the traditional music school. She'd introduced herself as a local girl—she lived on Harris. In the friendly, welcoming way of the Highlanders, she'd invited us to drop by. “Especially if you're there on the Sabbath;” she had said, “You'll need a home-cooked meal then.” Her remark had seemed oddly pointed at the time, but we understood her meaning now, all too well. We rummaged through our packs and found a copy of the school contact list. Tired and hungry and unsure of ourselves, we put in a call to Maggie.

“Och, sure! You're just doon the road! Come, then, the lot of ye! I've got supper on the stove.” One slight wrong turn and twenty minutes later, we were on her doorstep. She ushered us in with exclamations of welcome and genuine delight, took our jackets, offered us tea, and showed us to the kitchen, where dinner was indeed on the stove: four enormous dishes, heaped with food, cooked the day before, the pilot light's heat just barely enough to give them a hint of warmth. She had made this enormous feast the day before, so as not to trouble herself with the work of cooking on the Sabbath. There were bashed neeps with butter and curried rice salad with apricots. There was a platter of cold sliced meat and a tray with bread and cheese. It looked like enough to feed a village—certainly more than Maggie's small household, more than enough for them and four hungry musicians.

Maggie's hospitality startled us, dazzled us, and moved us deeply. She had known us only a week, and then mostly in passing. Yet here was this feast, and afterwards the demand that we put up our feet by the peat fire, rest a while, and share some tea. Her unqualified, whole-hearted welcome fluttered around us like a flock of quail landing in the wilderness, like manna in the desert. Here was pot-luck beyond our wild imaginings, canceling out all our fears of scarcity.

Islanders or desert wanderers, we all move with the burdens of hunger and fear. For the Israelites, it was the fear that their resources would not be sufficient to nourish their whole community. On Lewis, we faced a similar, though far less drastic, fear.

The island where I grew up has its own community struggles. Our island, unlike yours, has no bedrock. It is merely a pile of silt and gravel, the remnant of a glacier that got tired. To the executives and engineers of a mining company, all that pre-crushed rock made our island the perfect source of raw materials for all manner of lucrative clients, near and far away. They threatened to take a portion of the island—including protected shoreline and sensitive woodlands--by Eminent Domain in the name of Public Works.

We raged. We whispered. We made phone calls and wrote letters. We gossiped, prayed, and picketed. We raised such a stink that the county commissioners, engineers, and other highly-placed personages made their way from the mainland to the island. The cause became a celebrated one.

I wish I could tell you that we won, flat out. But real life rarely wraps things up so neatly. Nobody got exactly what they wanted. In the process, though, something has changed on the island. We've learned to be clear with each other. We've learned to work together—farmers, lawyers, schoolkids and grandparents, mechanics and politicians—to understand what matters most to us, what makes the island such a vital, precious and important place.

It remains to be seen whether all those tons of gravel will be pulled from that particular lump of earth. In the meantime, we have sowed seeds of good stewardship, and we have begun to reap a harvest of wisdom. As Paul said in his letter to the Ephesians,
“We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way... into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.”

Speak the truth in love-- how hard that is, when anxiety and frustration—and even righteous indignation—crowd out compassion from our hearts. And how hard it is to grow together, to find some all-too-uncommon Common Ground. On Lewis, that place of ancient stones, they wrestle with the decision to run ferryboats on Sundays, raising the fear that this will cheapen and weaken this tiny stronghold of Sabbath Rest. Here on Muscongus Island, you have your own struggles with resources, your own hard quests for Common Ground. But you also have sources of wisdom, strength and nourishment. You have auctions, workdays, and wonderful potluck feasts!

On the old agricultural calendar, today marks the beginning of Lammas or Lunasdal: the harvest season. On the Isle of Lewis, as on the Scottish mainland, it was a time to honor those who laboured in the fields. Bread and beer-- gifts of grain and the fruit of the earth—were shared in abundance. It was a kind of communion. There were toasts to praise workers and landowners both, ways to honour the well-rooted and the drifters. Although most of us no longer till the fields with our own muscles and sweat, the memory of these things is powerful—so powerful that the Common Lectionary, the shared cycle of bible readings heard in churches around the world, offers on this particular Sunday a plate full of manna, fresh harvests, heavenly bread.

Here, on this small island, on this particular lump of stone and earth, our fieldwork awaits. Let us ask ourselves and our neighbors: what shall be our harvest? What nourishment will we share with others, to keep the Spirit's gifts moving among us? What manna will we gather, together, in this place?

Manna, indeed: for the rest of our stay, we were invited to share meals and hailed cheerfully on the footpaths. We shared more stories and savoured the hospitality of many...and used more than one of the island outhouses, each decorated thoughtfully and distinctly. Farmdog, Piper and I roamed the island's beaches with our friends. I swam in the cool saltwater. We read books from the island library by solar flashlights after dark. It was a time of renewal, a time of nourishment for body and mind and soul. We've even been asked back for another Summer Sunday, next year!